Union: you'll never take our freedom

UCU Scotland congress rejects 'liberalisation and marketisation'. Hannah Fearn reports

April 1, 2010

Scottish academics have accused university managers of undermining academic freedom north of the border.

Members of the University and College Union Scotland gathered in Aberdeen last week for their annual congress.

The first motion to be carried at the event focused on concerns about the removal of the "employment statute" from Scotland's pre-1992 universities, which the union fears may make it easier for universities to institute mass redundancies.

In Scotland's pre-92 universities, institutional governance rules are set out via legal statutes. The employment statute covers redundancy and dismissal procedures, and often the terms of academic freedom. Many universities are seeking to amend them.

The motion cited concerns about a shift "from academic freedom within institutions through creeping privatisation, liberalisation and marketisation". It added that governance changes also posed a threat, "particularly where the pre-92 universities are removing the statutes relating to employment and breaking the link to academic freedom".

Mike McConnell, honorary secretary of the University of Aberdeen's UCU branch, said that the sector's attempts to establish a joint model statute for older universities had broken down, threatening scholars' freedoms.

Yet unlike other post-92 universities, Aberdeen had "stayed the course" and drawn up a model statute of its own, he added.

Lesley McIntosh, president of UCU Scotland, said the issues had to be debated in public.

"Threats to higher education will manifest themselves in different ways, including academic freedom, casualisation of staff and privatisation. We need an inquiry into the future of universities," she said.

The congress also heard condemnation of the Scottish Funding Council's Horizon Fund for knowledge-exchange activities. Critics have claimed that it allocates money in an opaque fashion.

Union members approved a motion criticising the fund, which distributes cash in line with the government's economic priorities, for its effects on the academy.

"Congress believes that aligning universities' activities with the government's economic objectives may impede scholarly diversity, debate, disagreement and difference of opinion," the motion said.

It was moved by the UCU branch at the University of Abertay Dundee.

A substantial amount of the university's SFC cash comes from the Horizon Fund, and the branch claimed that specific research projects and academic "behaviours" had been imposed as a result.

Facing the critics, John McClelland, chair of the SFC, said that the funding council was happy with the Horizon Fund's role in the sector.

"We believe we're getting the balance right," he said. "We think it's a reasonable investment and ... that it is important that it is focused."

But Andy Samuel, lecturer in sociology at Abertay Dundee, said he was "flabbergasted" by the funding council's response to union concerns.

He said: "The ramifications for colleagues' working practices and academic freedom are massive.

"The large chunk of funding we receive means that we are having to change our working practices to fit into the agenda."

hannah.fearn@tsleducation.com.

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